2 Years After Election, Mayoral Loser Wins : Mississippi: Three votes are tossed out from '93 contest. New leader has to move back to town, though.


Charlie Lewis moved to Michigan after losing this small town's 1993 mayoral election by one vote, and he was enjoying the quiet life of a retiree.

That was until he got an unexpected phone call to come back home. The state Supreme Court threw out three absentee ballots from the election, meaning Lewis is Hickory's new mayor.

"It's been more than two years," the 72-year-old Lewis said from Saginaw, Mich. "I guess I had forgotten about it."

Lewis is the first black mayor of this tiny hamlet of 500 nestled in the red clay hills of east Mississippi.

"I waited for a while," he said, "but the law takes a long time."

In September, the state Supreme Court tossed out three absentee ballots cast for Baptist minister Wayne Griffith, wiping out his one-vote victory. Lewis therefore won by two votes, 115-113. Both candidates are Democrats.

"What can you say?" a stunned Griffith responded when told he must leave the $6,500-a-year part-time job.

The Rev. Rodney Anderson, pastor of Hickory Baptist Church, said Griffith was a proven leader in his first term.

"He is a minister," Anderson said. "I don't know if Mr. Lewis has had the experience, the leadership. I guess we'll just have to make the best of it."

The town doesn't have much to govern.

It is bordered on one side by the Baptist church and by railroad tracks on another. A line of stores includes a bank, a grocery store that serves hot lunches, a hardware store and a furniture shop.

Most of the residents, about half black and half white, travel daily to nearby towns to man factory lines or haul wood. The schools closed four years ago, and students are bused to county-run classes in other areas.

The burning issues facing Lewis will be trying to figure out how the town can pay for a water system installed in the last two years and how to attract business.

Lewis, who will serve out the rest of the four-year term, would not discuss his plans.

"I will wait until I get down there," he said. "I know it's a mess."

Lewis, a former town alderman, and his wife, Rosie Lee, had gone to Michigan in July, 1994, believing the election challenge was unlikely to succeed. He said he is still stunned by the court decision.

"I think that when you get to be 72 years old you learn how to digest things," he said.

The Supreme Court found no illegalities in the election. But justices said then-town clerk and registrar Marie Childress improperly handled the three absentee ballots by notarizing them for three relatives at home.

The court said state law forbids Childress from handling absentee ballots outside the confines of her office, and the high court invalidated the three votes.

George S. Monroe II, an attorney representing the town, said he will ask the state's high court to reconsider.

Word about the court decision has slowly gotten around.

Donna Ferguson, who runs the Burger House restaurant with her husband, David, said residents appear in shock at the court decision and have little to say.

"They're disgusted with it all," she said. "It just took so long to get settled."

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